I sit at my vanity table and stick yet another bobby pin into my long, unruly hair, determined to tame it, if only for the next few hours.
I’m definitely hiring a professional hairstylist for the actual wedding, I muse as I stab myself for the fifth time in an hour.
Ouch! I yell to my empty bedroom. I take a moment and sit back in my chair. Frustration will get you nowhere, Brett, I calmly tell myself.
I take a few quick breaths and then resume my task. After several more minutes of wrangling, cursing, and dousing my wild mane with hairspray and more bobby pins, I sit back to take in my handiwork.
It looks pretty good, I murmur to myself as I turn my head side to side, impressed with my own skill. It had been risky to forgo my usual ponytail and try out the deep side part weaved into an intricate French braid, but I feel… sophisticated.
And even pretty.
“Well, a girl should feel pretty for her own engagement party,” I declare out loud while I pull a few strands of hair out of the delicate braid to frame my face.
I certainly don’t think I’m unattractive, but I sometimes have to remind myself that a lot of people, including my fiancé, find me to be pretty. I have deep, light green eyes and nice, full eyebrows. My eyelashes look longer thanks to hefty coats of mascara, and I have a smaller nose that some have described as cute.
And tonight, I actually feel sëxy. It’s not a common feeling for me, so I decide that I’m going to hang on to that sensation throughout the entire night.
I smile as I slip into my dress for the dinner. It’s snug, but the zipper doesn’t pinch, so I count the small victories. The fabric hugs my bust without being trashy, and the skirt stops right above my knee. It’s perfect for my engagement dinner.
I slip on my black wedge heels and stand back to examine myself in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of my closet door.
Hair, tame. Dress, pretty. Brett? Happy.
I shake my head at my nonsense. It’s a game I’ve played since I was a little girl. A checklist to make sure I feel confident and to let myself accept whatever emotion I might be feeling.
Across the room, my cell phone hums and I know immediately from the ringtone that it’s my mom.
“Hey Mom,” I greet.
“Hi sweetie. I just got to Gravity’s. The place looks lovely and they have the back room set up and ready for us.”
“Great! Thanks again for going early so I could finish getting ready.”
“Anything for you, sweetheart. Are you on your way?”
“I will be, in just a few minutes. I also need to see if Mark wants me to pick him up or not.”
“Okay, drive safe and text me when you’re on your way.”
“Will do.” I hang up the phone and laugh a little.
Leaning against the bed, I call Mark to check in about carpool plans. I smile as I wait for my fiancé to answer, thinking about his pretty blue eyes and infectious laugh. The phone rings but then a beep sounds.
You’ve reached me, but I can’t pick up. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I can, Mark’s voicemail greets me.
Huh. Mark is usually pretty good about answering, but I shrug and head to bathroom to grab my perfume. He’s probably just rushing to get ready since he had to stay at work late.
Mark is a junior architect, and he’s doing quite well for himself. He works for his dad, Michael Cooke. Michael founded Cooke Architects about twenty years ago and made quite a name for himself and his firm over the years. But the hours are long and it’s been frustrating because it seems that Mark has been working a lot recently, and often those hours run late into the night.
I shouldn’t complain, I scold myself. I’m lucky to have someone like Mark, who is kind and generous and who works so hard for us. But I can’t help wonder
Mark is a real-life Prince Charming.
I rub my fingers along the deep blue dress. It cost more than I wanted to pay, but Mark insisted that I wear something to our engagement dinner that would make me feel fabulous.
I hope it’s not too fitted, I think self-consciously.
I glance at the time. Oops, 6:15.
Quickly, I cross the hallway to my bathroom and rummage around for my perfume.
I can’t believe that Michael paid for the whole dinner tonight, I muse as I move around old nail polish and sample face washes in my search. That’s so generous of him, but I bet all he had to do was flash that smile and they gave him a major discount. He’s that good-looking. Quickly, I tamp down my thoughts. This is your future father-in-law! I scold myself. Don’t think these things.
Blushing, I find my perfume and start applying it.
Yeah, but Michael Cooke is total eye candy.
I stop mid-spritz. Stop, Brett. Really, just stop.
I shake my head.
Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, physically at least. With piercing, bright blue eyes, jet-black hair, and bodies like lumberjacks, Michael Cooke and his son Mark look more like brothers instead of father and son, except that Mark is slightly shorter and smaller, giving the older Mr. Cooke a strapping, powerful vibe.
Brett, stop!That’s your almost-father-in-law. What is wrong with you? I blush at my unbidden thoughts.
“It’s okay to think he’s attractive,” I murmur to myself out loud. “You’re just getting a glimpse of what Mark is going to look like in twenty years.” I grin at the thought and finish spraying on my perfume.
Then again, at twenty-five, Mark is hot. We went to high school together and while we didn’t really frequent the same circles back then – he was the typical jock while I lived in the library – all the girls knew that the star quarterback was the crush to have.
And now he gets to be mine! I say to myself. So why aren’t I more happy? Then, I shoot a glance at the clock. Crap. 6:23. I’m officially going to be late to my own engagement party.
With a final glance in the mirror, I dash downstairs, grab my keys and peacoat, and climb into my old hatchback. It’s not much, but this car has gotten me from point A to B since high school. Besides, buying a new car is out of the question until things pick up at the bookstore.
My little store, Knights and Princesses, specializes in promoting and selling romance novels, and I’ve put in a ton of hours to make it a thriving business. And my efforts have been paying off, if a little slowly. We get customers, but so far, most people are browsing instead of buying.
It helps that just a few months ago, I moved in with my mom and dad to save money on rent and bills. It feels a little childish to live at home again at my age. But like the amazing parents they are, they were thrilled to have me, and honestly, I needed to cut corners any place I could to keep my new business afloat.
It’s not a long drive from my parents house to Gravity’s, but it’s a pretty one, I’m cozy and excited at the promise of the approaching warmer months. The soft yellow and pink sunset only reinforces my good mood, and I take its sweetness as an omen for all the good things heading my way, starting with this little celebration tonight.
I pull into Gravity’s and park my car. I’ve always felt slightly out of place at fancy restaurants, but this is my engagement dinner, I remind myself. It should be at a fancy place. I square my shoulders and climb out of the hatchback.
Okay, big breath. Lots of people to greet.
As I walk to the restaurant, the door flies open to reveal my mom, looking matronly in a light pink dress edged in lace.
“There’s my little bride to be!”
“Hi Mom. You look so pretty!” I go to her quickly and hug her tightly.
“Sweetie, You look so beautiful.” My mom’s eyes start to mist. She kisses me on the cheek and dabs at her eyes.
“Mom, don’t cry!” I laugh at her sappiness.
“You’re just my baby is all and – ” She’s cut off mid-speech by the arrival of the first of my relatives.
Maria, Brett, hi! my great aunt screeches from across the parking lot while getting out of her luxury sedan.
With my mom occupied, I slip inside the building to look for Mark and to see the room before it becomes packed with my guests.
“Miss Turner,” the hostess greets me. “We have your private event set up in the back. Please, right this way.”
I follow the hostess into the deeper recesses of the restaurant. Gravity’s is a place I’ve always wanted to try, but I was always either too young for its elegance or too broke to afford it. It’s the kind of establishment that screams decadence and fancy food, and I still can’t believe I get to have my engagement party here.
Thank you, Michael Cooke.
While at first, I had felt awkward about Mark’s dad paying for the dinner, now, staring at the elegantly decorated room made up just for my engagement party, I’m giddy.
Several long, oak tables run the length of the room. At each table, wooden benches serve as the seating, padded with white cushions. Overhead, fairy lights drip from the ceiling, providing enough lighting to see but keeping an allure of mystery and romanticism about the room. In the middle of each table, short, squat vases are filled with peonies, each tied with twine and soft gold bows.
Through the paned glass windows, the sunset is casting an almost rosy gold hue to the room. A fireplace crackles and delicate heaters make the room feel like a perfect spring night.
I’m completely taken aback – the whole setup is like something out of a dream.
Who on earth did all of this?
Almost as if in response, Michael Cooke strolls into the room, looking extremely handsome in his fitted blue suit. He’s huge as always, and his black hair is damp and brushed off his high forehead. I melt a bit, but then try to control my reaction.
“Brett, hi.” He greets me with a light hug and kiss on my cheek.
“Hi Mr. Cooke.” He smells like the woods on a rainy day.
“Please, you need to start calling me Michael. We’re going to be family, after all.” Michael gestures around the room. “Well, what do you think?”
“Wait, you did all of this?”
He smirks a bit.
“I did. Well, I asked the restaurant to decorate the place as befits an engagement dinner. It’s time for romance, after all,” Michael says.
“I don’t know what to say. I love it.” Gratefully, I put my hand on his strong shoulder. “Thank you. It’s perfect.”
Michael looks at me intensely, as if he has more to say, his blue eyes flashing. My heart pounds and the air goes electric. But then, our moment is interrupted by the arrival of guests starting to pour into the room.
“How about I grab us each a drink? You might be needing it,” Michael says when people start coming over. With that, he’s gone and all I see is a flash of his dark blue blazer in the crowd. Multiple people surround me, and I’m suddenly inundated with questions, comments, and compliments.
Brett, you look stunning!
Wow, look at the lights, how pretty.
Good to see you sweetheart. Where’s the bar?
Where’s the groom?
Did you see your aunt?
Let’s see that ring!
Any special seating?
At some point in the chaotic meet and greet, Michael returns and slips an icy cold glass of champagne into my hand. I smile at him gratefully and just as quickly am pulled the other way by even more relatives bombarding me with questions.
Finally, my best friend, Hailey, bounces into the room and hugs me tightly, nearly spilling my drink. “
“Hi, my lovely bride-to-be! It’s your maid of honor reporting for duty. Oh my gosh look at you! Oh my gosh, look at those flowers! Oh my gosh look at Michael Cooke! HOT! Ooooh, are those crab cakes?” She grabs an hors d’oeuvre and stuffs it into her mouth.
I laugh at Hailey’s enthusiasm. We’ve known each other since first grade and the bubbly, petite is a constant source of entertainment.
“Hi Hailey.” I look behind her. “No date?” I raise my eyebrows at her, teasing.
“Ugh, no. I was going to bring that guy I met online the other week, but then he started talking about how much he loves his cat and I was like no thank you and also figured like all of Mark’s hot friends are going to be here plus his dad is super fine so I mean, really.” Hailey shrugs at the end of her dizzying speech. “Where is Mark, anyways?”
I look around the nearly full room. No fiancé to be found.
“I’m not sure. He said he had to work late, but I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” I tell Hailey, not wanting to admit my growing annoyance over his absence.
“But his dad’s here.” Hailey gestures across the room to Michael, who is talking to a particularly curvy redhead. Who is that woman? I frown at them, unsure why I feel a twinge of jealousy. “Doesn’t Mark work for his dad?”
“Yeah but Mr. Cooke owns the company. Mark, child genius he may be, is merely a junior architect.”
Suddenly, Michael looks up to see Hailey and I looking at him. He raises his glass at us, and I respond in kind and smile at the handsome man, but just as quickly turn away.
Who is that woman? The thought bugs me, and I shake my head with annoyance.
“Well, it’s just as well because I want to see that rock again,” Hailey coos as she grasps my left hand in hers and examines my engagement ring intently. “Oh gosh, Brett. This ring is to die for.” She fakes fainting and I can’t help but laugh at her antics.
“It is lovely.” I sigh with delight while I gaze at the pretty heirloom. It’s been in Mark’s family for generations and it’s single-handedly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever worn. The ring is an antique, 18-karat gold band set with real pearls and delicate diamonds. All of which centers on a flawless 1.5-carat center diamond. Given its age, perfect condition, and giant gemstone, the ring probably costs more than my car. I love wearing it but I’m also terrified to be entrusted with something so precious.
“Lovely is an understatement.” Hailey shakes her head. “Mark must really love you.”
Suddenly, we’re interrupted.
Oh the ring! I would love to get a closer look, Brett, comes a high-pitched wheezy voice. My Great-Aunt Sue ambles over, always eager for the latest gossip to snag and immediately share.
I kiss her withered old cheek and hold my hand out to her.
Brett, this ring something special. What’s the story?
“Well, it’s been in Mark’s family for several generations now, on his dad’s side.”
Auntie Sue nods, looking at the ring thoughtfully.
It looks like it’s expensive. I wonder how much…? She regards me inquisitively but I just laugh. Fine, keep your secrets, Little Miss. And mind you take good care it, Aunt Sue lectures me.
“I will. I’m really blessed to have such a beautiful and treasured ring. I know it means a lot to the family.” I smile at my relative, sincere in my words. I’m so lucky to have a ring from Michael Cooke.
Well, you look as pretty as a picture. The older woman pinches my cheek and walks toward the bar. Take care sweetie pie. I’m going to get myself another cocktail. Those Aperol spritzes are good!
As my aunt ambles away, my best friend giggles a bit.
“Wonder how many drinks she’s had,” Hailey teases.
“She is a character.” I roll my eyes.
“But she’s right, you do look so beautiful.” Hailey squeezes my hand.
I beam at her and look down again at my stunning engagement ring. Tonight, set against my creamy skin and blue velvet dress, the ring sparkles especially bright, a visual representation of my mood.
Where the heck is Mark?
Across the room, Michael shoots me a glance, even though he’s still talking to the redhead. Who is that woman? I think to myself for the third time. I smile slightly, and turn away from him, not entirely sure why I suddenly feel both embarrassed and thrilled to catch him looking at me.
For the next several minutes, I make the rounds and continue to greet my guests, sneaking in quick calls to Mark that range from worry about him to demanding to know where he is. I’m growing more and more frustrated that my fiancé still hasn’t made an appearance when, finally, after my fifth phone call, Mark picks up.
“Hey, I’ve been trying to reach you. Where are you?” I try to control my exasperation, relieved that he has finally answered.
“Sorry, I know. Look I can’t talk but I’ll be on my way soon,” He says in a slightly breathless voice. Has he been working out? Why would he sound like that?
Mark hangs up abruptly before I can ask, and I stand there for a moment, wondering what hell is going on and why I’m alone at my own engagement party.
Sighing, I sip on my almost empty glass of champagne and observe the joy around me. Where is my handsome fiancé? And why hasn’t he made an appearance yet?